When the NHL lost an entire season to a labor dispute nearly a
decade ago, the Washington Capitals were spared many months of
on-ice misery. Had they played, they no doubt would have started
their streak of last-place finishes a year early.
”I was in no rush to get back last time,” General Manager
George McPhee said with a laugh. ”It wasn’t going to be a whole
lot of fun, trying to build a team. When we came out of that, we
were trying to fill boots.”
This year’s Capitals needed the lockout to end in a hurry.
They’ve been Stanley Cup contenders for a while now, but they have
yet to claim the title that once felt so inevitable. A lost season
would have meant another crucial opportunity down the drain for
Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the talented roster that McPhee has
so meticulously assembled.
”We have a real solid team,” McPhee said. ”We’re in good
shape. We have a complete team.”
Yet they have a major new element – one that makes a crunch of a
season considerably more challenging. Adam Oates is making his head
coaching debut, and the players are going to have to learn his
system on the fly.
”It’s very tough,” Oates said. ”Communication’s vital.
There’s going to be mistakes. But every system has mistakes.”
Those mistakes will be played out in January instead of October,
in games that have nearly twice the importance in the standings
because there are 48 instead of 82. Oates began the truncated camp
with a lengthy video session to give everyone an idea of what he
had in mind.
”As a forward, you’re not used to skating in certain situations
your whole career, and we’re going to ask you to skate (there)
now,” Oates said. ”It’s a transition where they’ve got to learn
to do that. And the defensemen have certain situations where
they’re like that. So there’s going to be sometimes mistakes based
on that, and we’ve just got to fight through that.”
The biggest change to the casual observer at camp has been the
placement of Ovechkin, who has been skating at right wing instead
of his customary position on the left side. It’s an experiment
suggested by Oates to create a different look – one of raps on
Ovechkin last year was that his moves to the net had become so
familiar that defensemen had figured them out. The former two-time
league MVP had a career-low 65 points last season.
”Everybody knows Ovi is to come from the left side,” center
Nicklas Backstrom said. ”Maybe it changes the situation a little
bit for the other team, how they’re going to play him and
Last summer, McPhee mostly concentrated on keeping the team
intact, but there was one major addition – second-line center Mike
Ribeiro – and one major departure – enigmatic winger Alexander
Semin. The Capitals have at times appeared overloaded at goaltender
during the last few seasons, only to have injuries or other
circumstances leave the team lacking in front of the net. They can
knock on wood – or ice – and proclaim themselves in good shape, at
least for now, based on 23-year-old Braden Holtby’s performance in
last year’s playoffs.
Holtby got to stay in game shape by playing for Hershey in the
AHL during the lockout. His competition is 24-year-old Michal
Neuvirth, and both should get plenty of starts in the cramped
schedule to come.
Scheme-wise, Oates falls somewhere in between the
offensive-minded Bruce Boudreau and defensive-first Dale Hunter.
The players had to overhaul their thinking when Boudreau was fired
and replaced by Hunter last November after an early-season slump,
so changing gears should be nothing do.
”It’s just business,” defenseman Mike Green said. ”You just
go and play and do what’s put in front of you. It’s all been
different the last two years, but I feel like there’s a good
feeling in here as far as where we’re going.”
Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP